ASTA World Tea Expo panel confirms importance of community
This year’s World Tea Expo featured an impressive group of tea experts from across the U.S. in its Marketplace Perspectives: Real Stories from the Field panel, sponsored by the American Specialty Tea Alliance (ASTA).
Moderated by Suzette Hammond, professional tea trainer and founder of Being Tea, panelists included Jordan G. Hardin, food & beverage director for Alfred Inc., Andrew McNeill, with Seven Cups Fine Chinese Tea, Cynthia Fazekas, wholesale sales manager for Adagio Teas, Jo Johnson, coordinator at A Gift of Tea, Michael Ortiz, Founder/CEO of JoJo Teas, and Noli Ergas of Sugimoto America.
One idea discussed by panelists referenced sociologist Ray Oldenburg’s concept of a place humans need besides work and home, which Oldenburg refers to as “the third place” in his influential 2000 book, Celebrating the Third Place: Inspiring Stories about the “Great Good Places” at the Heart of Our Communities. Tea houses, Oldenburg suggests, fall into that category of places that “host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work.”
Panelist Andrew McNeill confirmed that the concept of “the third place” has been part of the discussion among tea retailers for some time. Seven Cups in Tucson, Ariz., now 15 years old, has evolved into a gathering place, he said, “providing not only goods, but a necessary social experience.” His customers gather to play mah jong, fundraise for the local university, and, in the case of one mother/daughter couple, come together to simply catch up on each other’s lives, a process that has now encompassed the daughter’s growth from child to adult.
Another intriguing idea raised by panelist Michael Ortiz was the tea house as an “intense hospitality experience.” McNeill noted that in his business, this means “anticipating your guests’ needs in a way that may well be surprising to them.” For example, he said, the classic Chinese teas that Seven Cups supplies “may be a little impenetrable” for some customers, at least at first. His staff is trained to engage the customer about their personal preferences, such as the kind of wine they like, and how they view their personality. Based on this conversation, McNeill said, teas are then recommended, helping to build a bond of trust.
“People want both to be taken care of, and to get something of quality,” he said, “even if, at first, they don’t know what to ask for.”
McNeill praised the panel discussion as a perfect idea exchange opportunity for both participants and audience members, especially those small retailers whose business needs consume most of their time. “It can be difficult to find the time to look outward,” he said, but staying abreast of trends and innovations is vital.
He pointed to Ortiz’s description of inserting a different, unlisted tea into a tea tasting as a “sniper move” — one that could well introduce customers to something they had never anticipated trying. In the long run, those types of experiences are what make a business a true “third place.”